After the savagery perpetrated by the IRA during The Troubles, it takes a lot to shock people here.
But last week's kidnapping and brutal torture of Kevin Lunney near the border not only did that but brought back memories of IRA atrocities in the past—the knee-cappings, bone-breaking assaults, proxy bombs and all the rest of it.
Lunney is chief operating officer of Quinn Industrial Holdings (QIH) which now runs most of the companies in the former Sean Quinn group which collapsed in the crash a decade ago. That collapse caused huge controversy and a lot of local sympathy for Quinn, who was once Ireland's richest man before he lost billions speculating on bank shares.
The takeover of the Quinn empire, which straddled the border counties of Cavan (in the south) and Fermanagh (in the North) and provided a lot of local employment, caused fierce resentment. This has dissipated somewhat in recent years as hundreds of jobs were saved, but a hardcore of opponents have continued to wage a violent campaign against the change.
That campaign has included firebomb attacks on company property and equipment and intimidation of executives and their families involving car burnings, death threats, assaults, bullets in the post, even mafia-style messages like a pig's head left on a doorstep. The campaign reached a new level of savagery last week in advance of a meeting with potential investors from the U.S.
A director at one of Seán Quinn’s former companies Kevin Lunney was abducted from his home in Fermanagh last night. He was seriously assaulted and left on the side of a road across the border in Cavan. pic.twitter.com/6uvSVbmpVl— Áine McMahon (@AineMcMahon) September 18, 2019
Lunney was driving to his home in Derrylin in Fermanagh from his office on Tuesday evening when the horrific incident began with his car being rammed by two other vehicles. He locked the doors from the inside but the attackers smashed through the windows and dragged him out, tying him up and forcing him into the boot of another car before driving him back across the border to an isolated area probably near Cavan town.
There he was taken out and forced into a container where at least ten men were waiting armed with baseball bats, iron bars, knives, and other weapons. He was told they were there to deliver a message because he had not complied with a recent demand that all QIH executives resign.
What followed was torture that went on for at least an hour. He was stripped, beaten all over his body with baseball bats and slashed with knives.
One man went to work on his legs with what was probably an iron bar and then did so a second time because he had not heard a bone crack. One of Lunney's legs was broken in two places.
His attackers then used a carpet knife on his fingers to remove any of their DNA left there, cutting off some of his fingernails in the process. He was swabbed all over in bleach for the same reason before being bundled back into a car and eventually dumped in a ditch at the side of a narrow country road around ten miles from Cavan town.
He was spotted a couple of hours later by a man driving a tractor who was sitting high enough to see him. Semi-conscious, he might not have survived the night otherwise.
PSNI Chief Constable Simon Byrne says officers were shocked by the escalation of violence seen in the attack against Quinn Industrial Holdings businessman Kevin Lunney.
Mr Byrne and Garda Chief Commissioner Drew Harris met at the Cross Border Organised Crime Conference today pic.twitter.com/82Q6dNE144— Damien Edgar (@damien_edgar7) September 25, 2019
Lunney is now recovering in hospital and may be out by the time this column appears. Apart from the intense physical pain and trauma he suffered, one can only guess at the long-term psychological damage that has been done to him.
That this kind of brutality can take place in a democratic country where we are supposed to have law and order is outrageous. It's a legacy of the lawless savagery and criminality that was rampant in the border area for years and still pollutes attitudes among a minority there today.
The culprits remain undetected at the time of writing. All the cars involved were burned out, although there is one possible lead involving someone seen buying bleach.
The security services on both sides of the border believe those responsible were local thugs, dissident republicans and former IRA men now engaged in crime. They are likely to have been paid for their services.
Whoever ordered and financed the attack is unknown, although we do know that this was planned some time ago when one of the cars used was stolen. What is puzzling is why this attack happened at this stage, although the timing appears to have been aimed at putting off potential investors in QIH. As we said above, the level of local opposition to the ousting of Quinn has lessened recently, yet the violent campaign has continued for eight years.
Quinn has condemned the violence and said it is damaging to him and his family. Yet the campaign has gone on, and with the assault on Lunney, it has reached a new level.
One can only speculate why. Is it still a reflection of the anger over the fall of Quinn, a local hero because of the way he built an industrial empire that began with one truck and a gravel pit? He has only himself to blame for the reckless gamble he took on bank shares before the crash, and his attempts to hide away overseas assets after he went bust did nothing for his reputation either.
At last count there have been more than 40 individual incidents targeting staff and the company. No arrests. No charges. As the company says, it is ‘inexplicable’. What happened to Kevin Lunney was utterly appalling and shameful. https://t.co/dH9eqTJeqs— Ian Kehoe (@ipkehoe) September 18, 2019
The efforts by the current management team (most of whom used to work for him) to sort out the business have been reasonably successful and even included hiring their former boss as a consultant at €300,000 a year in an effort at peace. But Quinn seemed to be focused solely on wrestling back control and the arrangement did not last, so he was out again.
If this attack was aimed at supporting him, it seems not just misguided but outdated. The situation has moved on since the collapse a decade ago and the campaign is pointless.
Which makes one wonder if this might be simply an attempt to extract protection money? Piggy-backing on past grievances for criminal purposes is what remnants of the IRA do these days, after all.
What is really concerning in all of this is the way the security services on both sides of the border have allowed the situation to drift over the past eight years, despite pleas for help from those being intimidated. It has gone on and on over the years, with everything from family cars being torched to confrontations and threats of extreme violence.
Those most active in the campaign are known to the police on both sides, yet no one has gone to jail. The strategy seems to have been to avoid inflaming the local situation and to wait for it all to dissipate over time. It's now clear this was a mistake.
That this is a border area where respect for police and the law has been undermined by the 30-year long IRA campaign, smuggling and other criminality is a factor. Even today there is a fear of speaking out, which makes the march a few days ago by over 1,000 people protesting the attack on Lunney so significant. It puts it up to the police on both sides of the border to take resolute action.
On a wider level, this is also important because of the difficult situation we face as Brexit approaches. That will certainly be the case if there is a hard Brexit and the return of some kind of visible border. Whatever happens, even in a soft Brexit, there will be the potential for increased violence and criminality, particularly in border areas.
It will be vital that the police on both sides remain in control and combat this. What we saw last week in Cavan/Fermanagh does not inspire confidence in their ability to do so. Nor does the failure in areas like the Creggan in Derry.
The ongoing undermining of authority has to be confronted and reversed. And in particular, that will mean dealing with those former republican hard men who regard themselves as above the law that everyone else observes.